On Sunday, voters in Ecuador voted for a candidate for president on a conservative platform for the first time in nearly 15 years. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Guillermo Lasso, a former banker and finance minister who advocates shrinking the state and lowering taxes, led his closest rival, the socialist Andrés Arauz, by almost 5 points in the country’s runoff elections. Both Arauz and former President Rafael Correa congratulated Lasso on his victory on Sunday night as Lasso, a longtime Correa opponent, pledged reforms for business and continued respect for independent institutions and the free press.
The polarizing elections were more than just a competition between two candidates. They turned into a referendum on Ecuador’s recent past. Arauz ran as the handpicked successor to the populist former leader Correa and promised to bring Ecuador back to the era of Correa’s “civil revolution”: a period from 2007 to 2017 marked by high growth and the emergence of a new middle class, but also by oppression and Civil society critics censored in Correa.
The vote shows that almost four years after Correa left, distrust of his brand of authoritarian populism is still deeply ingrained in a broad cross-section of the population. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic twice brought Ecuador’s health system to the brink of collapse and plunged 3.2 million more Ecuadorians into poverty, several voters preferred an untested alternative to a return to the past.
There is great disappointment with democratic institutions and, given the party balance in the recently elected legislature, Lasso will take office as an isolated president with a weak mandate. The three top left parties and coalitions hold nearly 70 percent of the seats. This means that he will face a much greater challenge in governing than in winning a large number of votes: He must convince his opponents that it is worthwhile to play by democratic rules even if they are losing.
Lasso’s ability to govern is likely determined by the participation of three coalitions that have defined Ecuadorian politics since Correa’s last years in office. Lasso is a longtime leader of the First Coalition: high and middle income voters, as well as business people looking to reduce the state’s role in the economy, and Ecuador’s massive external debt, a group that also supports current President Lenín Moreno, who chose to do so did not run for re-election. The second bloc, Arauz’s Union for Hope coalition, brings together the new middle class that emerged during Correa’s years in office and low-income voters in the city who remember the civil revolution as a golden era of upward mobility.
Between the two poles, a third bloc has built a significant political dynamic in recent years: young, socially progressive center-left voters and indigenous communities who reject both Correa’s illiberal, extractive development model and Lasso’s neoliberalism. In the first-round elections on February 7, these voters supported two new faces, giving indigenous leader Yaku Pérez of the Pachakutik Party and political outsider Xavier Hervas of the Democratic Left Party 35 percent of the vote. Pérez alleged cheating after narrowly missing the second round and requested a recount. However, the Ecuadorian National Electoral Council voted to end the review before it was finalized, which aroused suspicion among Pérez’s supporters of the unfair trade.
After the competition was limited to the two most polarizing alternatives, the choice turned into an unpopular contest. Both Lasso and Arauz tried their best to distinguish themselves as unity candidates, as the voters of the third bloc were forced to choose the candidate they liked the least.
Lasso built his career as president of one of the largest private banks in Ecuador and became finance minister during the country’s traumatic economic collapse in 1999. Fairly or unfairly, many left and left continue to associate him with the strict austerity that followed. As the race reached its final mile, Lasso expanded his support by promising to keep his conservative religious views out of politics and holding a referendum on protecting Yasuni National Park from oil production.
Arauz was less able to unload his reputational baggage, perhaps because the abuses of the Correa years were fresh in the minds of voters. From the start, Arauz’s campaign was consistently linked to Correa’s legacy: slogans promoted by prominent supporters proclaimed “Arauz is Correa” and posters emphasized the image of the former president. In the last few weeks of the campaign, Arauz suppressed praise for his political mentor and spoke vaguely about learning from past mistakes.
But most Ecuadorians were unwilling to forgive or forget. An Arauz victory would likely have meant a return from exile for Correa, who has escaped corruption allegations by staying in Belgium for the past few years, as well as a withdrawal of anti-corruption investigations in Correa’s inner circle and a new life expectancy for Correa the political one Career of the ex-president. That was one bridge too far for both the right and the independent center-left. Many leftists seem to have decided that they would rather be the democratic opposition to a right-wing government than risk being oppressed by a left-wing government.
The election result, however, had more to do with abstentions and ballots, which were well above typical values, than with the last minute maneuvers of both candidates. In the last presidential election in 2017, only around 6 percent of voters cast blank or invalid ballots. This time it was 17 percent, and around 20 percent abstained from voting despite the laws that require voting. The zero votes exceeded the votes cast in six provinces for Arauz and in five other provinces came close to what is far from a vote of confidence in the institutions of the country in their current form. It is hardly a sign of democratic well-being when every fifth citizen of a country votes and votes “none of the above”. Correa’s liberalizing successor Moreno made some progress in reforming these institutions. But he has made almost as many mistakes in bypassing due process guarantees to remove Correístas from the state in a way that fits perfectly with Correa’s narrative of the prosecution, and taking austerity measures that common Ecuadorians use against that left unprotected economic chaos of the past year. Arauz and his allies are now on the scene to prove that they can learn from the mistakes of their movement in the past and act like a loyal opposition, but Lasso must also learn from Moreno’s missteps in order not to commit the same mistakes
Lasso, a business-friendly textbook politician, will face an uphill battle to implement his political agenda and perhaps even end his term in office. During the campaign, he promised to lower taxes for individuals and companies. Open Ecuador to free trade agreements with the United States, Europe and Asia; and advance the $ 6.5 billion IMF debt negotiation and austerity measures launched under Moreno. Lasso also pledged to take a tough stance on Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and strengthen the anti-corruption institutions.
However, he will find little legislative support in the newly elected National Assembly of Ecuador, in which his party for creating opportunities and its ally, the Social Christian Party, control only a fifth of the seats. Even among the parties on the left there are many divisions. The largest legislative bloc is formed by Arauz’s coalition Union for Hope, which remains true to Correa’s vision of active state intervention in the economy and is resolutely against Lasso’s plan for market reforms. The next two largest left parties in the legislature – the Pachakutik party, which advocates environmental protection and indigenous rights, and the Democratic Left – are in talks to form a united front. The coalition plans to oppose the privatization of state-owned companies, central bank reform and new raw material projects that could cause environmental damage. Pachakutik and the Democratic Left remain bitter about Correa, who tried hundreds of indigenous leaders and environmentalists during his tenure.
Pérez’s substantial support during the first round of this year’s elections showed that many voters seeking progressive candidates wanted a very different path than a return to Correa’s politics. For Lasso, the emergence of an independent center-left party offers an opportunity. At best, Lasso will realize he will have to work with the more moderate center-left parties to rule. By genuinely involving these parties in policymaking, Lasso would send a clear message to Correa and Arauz’s allies that it is worth playing in established institutional channels and that venturing outside of them is a breeze.
However, if Lasso tries to go it alone, or proves unwilling to make substantial political concessions, he could quickly make friends of enemies, and all three left parties could find common ground if they join him in the National Assembly or, yet more threatening, resist. In the streets. In the worst case scenario, Ecuador could come full circle to the presidential overthrow and economic chaos that plagued the 1990s – an outcome that all sides are keen to avoid.
Unfortunately, the current uncertainty hardly makes Ecuador particularly unique among its South American neighbors. Since commodity prices fell and corruption cases multiplied in the mid-2010s, election fragmentation and anti-system candidates have been successful across the region. In Peru’s first round presidential election, also held on April 11, anti-system candidates fronted the president’s left and right, which is likely to only exacerbate the endemic instability that plagued previous governments. Peru is just the most dramatic example of a broader regional trend towards anti-politics and instability. If Ecuador is lucky and Lasso rules wisely, this could still be the exception.